Greetings from the tiny island of St Eustatius in the Caribbean!
I arrived on Monday from a balmy Summer’s day in England to learn that I, in fact, had no idea what summer was. This is summer. The papers in London get excited when it gets warmer than 25ᴼC… here it is almost always 27⁰C or higher, rain or shine.
Driving through Oranjestad, the only town on the island, the volunteer coordinator Claire waves and toots the horn at every passing car and pedestrian. “You have to always wave at everyone, and greet anyone you see on the path or in the shops, or I’ll be getting people telling me my volunteers are rude!” The only passers-by who were above giving us greetings were the wandering farm animals that periodically block the road: chickens herding cheeping chicks, barely distinguishable sheep and goats (“Tail up, goat, tail down, sheep,” Claire tells me), and occasionally a large black cow or terrified calf standing stock still in the middle of the road. When we reached the house, it was no different. An old rescue dog called Foxy ran up and greeted me, staring at his newcomer with his good eye, while the beautiful smoky grey cat Vinny regarded me with haughty gold eyes from the porch from which he presides. There has been a constant residency of chickens in the garden since I’ve been here, most notably a rather bold cockerel who has taken it upon himself to be the island’s alarm clock, and tries to sneak into the house if you leave the door open.
The volunteers returned from their Zumba class and welcomed me, and started filling me in on some of the traditions and inside jokes that have developed over their stay. Happy Hour begins at 4pm in the Old Gin House, and luckily my first experience had their favourite barmaid making the best cocktails- Pina Coladas, Raggae Rainbows, Rocky Mountains… I look forward to trying most of them before I leave! The best spot for dancing on a Friday night is Supa Burger- a bit of a misnomer as no one can recall ever having a burger there, but apparently it is the place to go when you’re ready to ‘be a Rolly Polly girl’. The Rolly Polly dance is twerking for the girls with the curves to work it to Mr Killa’s ‘Rolly Polly’ and everyone laughs about it.
My induction began at Claire’s pride and joy, the Botanic Gardens on the foothills of the Quill (one of the two National Parks). The Gardens are split into several phases, the first being the Sensory Arbours, a walk through beautiful, fragrant flowers like frangipanis, colourful explosions of bright bouquets, a selection of edible fruits and nuts (cashews, passion fruit, mangoes, almonds, pineapples and more), spiky plants, sandpaper leaves, calabash vines that produce round fruits that can be used as brightly painted maracas. Up from the main pavilion (newly restored by volunteers) is the Bird Trail, where a keen observer can spot tiny iridescent hummingbirds flitting about between flowers, and upwards of that is the children’s area, with a stunning view over the sea to the next island, St Kitts, where Claire tells me humpback whales can be seen through the telescope, breaching and swimming with their calves in the breeding season. Part of the volunteers’ work here is helping Claire maintain the garden, as well as develop the pavilion and the building that will become the office, shop and classroom. Behind this building is the tool shed and bathrooms that have a beautiful mural painted by a previous volunteer that depicts the whole island, with turtles streaming from a nest on Zeelandia beach, Statia’s endangered iguana perched in a tree full of large caterpillars, the large dormant volcano (the Quill) and a beautiful frigate bird flying over the doors.
I was taken up the Quill on my second day, to see the trails that STENAPA has been working on building with its interns and volunteers. We were joined by a couple of the archaeologists working on unearthing some of the rich history of colonialism and slavery on the island, and just as we began on our walk another hiker joined us- a friendly black and white dog who bounded out of the bushes as if he had been waiting for us, and then came all the way up the mountain with us. The scenery changed almost unrecognisably through our walk- at one point, we could almost have been in an English deciduous forest, but when we went inside the crater we were surrounded by rainforest- incredibly tall trees with huge buttress roots, with plaited vines that Tarzan would have been proud to swing from. As we clambered down the rocky slope, small lizards scampered out of our way, occasionally stopping on a tree trunk to display to us with vigorous nods of their red heads, hermit crabs bigger than golf balls rolling down the hill, a couple of snakes melted into the undergrowth and underneath one rock we found Statia’s only species of frog. The Johnson’s whistling tree frog is a tiny brown amphibian (just over a centimetre) with a loud birdcall-like chirp that can be heard from many corners of the crater. We weren’t lucky enough to find a scorpion or tarantula, but I have a bit of a weakness for spiders and I was very excited to see a long jawed orb weaver spider, and this spiny-backed orb weaver (a recent spider survey completed by an intern helped with the identifications).
But I’ve still got a lot of exciting animals to hunt down- like the lesser Antillian Iguana, which is one of the targets for STENAPA’s wildlife conservation endeavours. The days of eating iguana on Statia have passed, but as neighbouring islands are in the habit of making the delicacy of iguana soup with the green iguana, which is abundant on the ABC islands, foreigners that come to Statia assume that the endangered endemic iguana on Statia is the same, and this has affected the population here. The soup is sold with the tale that eating iguana will give men special lovemaking abilities (it doesn’t) and there also used to be the superstition that if an iguana tail hits your leg it will break it (they won’t), which encouraged people to kill them in days past.
This sad story is very reminiscent of the superstitions I’ve heard before that if an aye-aye (a creature that looks like a bat and Golem had a love child) points its finger at you, you will die unless you kill the aye-aye first. This poor creature (which I think is rather cute, but most perceive to be one of the world’s ugliest animals, second to the naked mole rat) suffered rather badly at the hands of local people in Madagascar, like the iguanas in the Caribbean. And all kinds of black-market animal trade items are meant to help remorseless men with their lovemaking- rhino horn (which is made of keratin so its cheaper to eat your hair and fingernails, though won’t do much for you libido), tiger bone and pangolin foetuses.
Anyway, I’ll move away from rants about black market trade of endangered species and back to the good news for conservation on Statia! The terrestrial areas manager, Hannah, recently completed a survey of the breeding success of red-billed tropic birds on Pilot Hill by doing weekly surveys with volunteers and interns over the past year to count the number of chicks at the nests, and camera traps to catch rats as they came to steal from the nests. Breeding success at each nest (which has one egg each) was found to be about 40 per cent, which was higher than the survey conducted from 2012-2013, and it was found that rats are a predation problem for the birds that need to be addressed.
The bird survey season is now over, but I’m having the ‘Turtle Talk’ on Wednesday and then I’ll be heading out with the marine ranger Jess to do a turtle patrol! Fingers crossed for a lucky sighting, though apparently the stars are amazing if the sky is clear and you can see bioluminescence coming up on the waves as well, so I won’t see it as a day wasted!
I’ve also done my induction dive with STENAPA today. I’ve already got my Open Water qualification and I’m hoping to do some dives with the commercial dive companies here as well as STENAPA, maybe even get my Advanced qualification! One of my fellow volunteers Sarah went on a night dive last week and is doing her Advanced, so I’m quite hopeful. The snorkelling on the bay outside our house is also very good- you can see schools of fish from the hill if you look carefully on a good day, and there are eels and octopuses to be seen on a wall underneath the water just out from the beach. Plus there is the possibility of finding Statia’s blue beads, the only artefact you are allowed to take off the island. They are beads that the slaves of Statia used to use for currency, and apparently when a man wanted to marry a woman he had to find enough beads to go around his intended’s waist (and since men always wanted women with good hips for bearing children, this would mean a lot of beads!). These beads are elusive but could be found anywhere- on the roadside, in the old ruins, snorkelling off the beach, diving Blue Bead Hole, you just have to keep your eyes open!
We learned about the beads and more from a lovely American lady who took us on a walking tour of the island over the weekend. For such a tiny island, Statia has a very rich history, and was crucial for America’s victory in the War of Independence. I would try to do her tales justice, but I just don’t think I could cover enough in what is already quite a long post!
‘til next time! By Nina Seale, WorkingAbroad Intern – more info on the Statia Conservation Project here